Being an Academic

What Do Academics Actually Do?

Ever wondered what being an academic involves and what we actually do with our time? Wonder no longer. This was written for the students by my colleague Prof Rodney Brazier at the School of Law, University of Manchester.


The empty room

1. Students:  have you ever gone to find an academic, only to discover an empty room?  Or have you found him or her in it, hunched over a PC?  Or reading?  What are they doing?  The Staff-Student Committee recently accepted my offer to write an answer.  But prenez garde!  This isn’t an official paper, and other academics might have written a different version.  Anyway, here it is.

Not all academics are the same

2. There are various types of academic.  Most are appointed to do several things – teach, research, and administer (words which will be elaborated on later).  Thus he or she will have to balance the time available so as to deliver teaching, to carry out research, and so on.  Some aspects of the job can be done anywhere.  Indeed, the attractions of a quiet home and an internet connection permit far more to be achieved there in a day’s work (not involving face-to-face teaching) than would be the case in the Law School, with its competing distractions.  The Law School operates a principle of equality of contribution in relation to all full-time academics.  This means that, for example, an academic who has a burdensome job like Exams Officer isn’t asked to do the same amount of teaching as one who has no such task.  To achieve this balance the School has (and is currently revising) a Work Allocation Model.  This principle applies to all full-timers, whether the newest lecturer, or the most senior professor.

3. But there are different types of contract.  Thus an individual may be on an ordinary contract, or be research-focused, or teaching-focused, or part-time.  Some are graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), who both teach and work on their PhDs.  And at any given moment individuals might be on various kinds of leave – such as research leave (which removes teaching responsibilities for the duration), leave paid for by an external organisation, maternity leave, or sick leave.  (By the way, if a student is feeling under par, he or she can stay away from a class.  By contrast, a lecturer who is awaited by a class, whether of 12 or of 200, must soldier on, unless too ill, or if there is an emergency.)

Blackboard and chalk

4. Most student contact with academics takes place during teaching.  You know that academics teach, and that you learn.  So far as it is possible to do so, academics are allocated the subjects which they prefer to teach.  Whatever the teaching method used, the teaching which you experience is (if you’ll forgive the cliché) rather like an iceberg.  Most of it is invisible to you.  Teaching requires knowledge, preparation, and expertise – all of which require unseen work.  Even to give a lecture which had been delivered the previous year will require updating – perhaps complete rewriting if Parliament or the courts have been especially busy.  Materials delivered on Blackboard or through other IT means must be posted and updated.  (By the way, academics receive comments on their teaching performance (did you notice avoidance of the “F” word?).  This comes through, for example, peer review of classes by other colleagues, and by the University Evaluation Questionnaires (statistically largely useless, alas, after they were put online and thus receive low response rates)).  And then there will be essays to mark, whether assessed or non-assessed, every one of which requires individual comments (did you ditto?).  With typically 12 students in an undergraduate seminar, multiplied by the number of seminars taken in that subject by an individual academic, that’s a lot of marking.

5. Teaching isn’t confined to formal classes.  It continues in a variety of ways, for instance, through email exchanges.  The use of emails has increased dramatically in recent years.  Indeed, one colleague – albeit perhaps for special reasons – answers many hundreds of student emails in the first part of semester 1 each year.  Email is a good way of helping students with all sorts of queries, and indeed of communicating with you.

6. At the end of a typical undergraduate course there will be an assessment.  In addition to coursework assessments in some subjects, nearly all have an exam, which has to be set and marked.  This will often require two separate papers for each such course, the first-sit, and the resit.  These papers are scrutinised in the School, and then by external examiners in other universities, to ensure that things like clarity and fairness are achieved.  (Senior Manchester academics will also be externals elsewhere.)  Every exam script is read by at least one academic in the School, and sometimes by more than one.  The course unit director is usually the person who checks the whole batch.  This is mainly in order to ensure consistency of marking.  Specified scripts (such as any fails, all Firsts, and any irresolvable borderlines (is this a 2(1), or a First?)) are sent to an external examiner, whose rulings are normally accepted as final.

7. Most academics do some postgraduate teaching or supervision, and some do a great deal. Teaching on the taught postgraduate programmes attracts similar considerations to those outlined already.  But supervising the research degrees, such as the PhD, is very different.  The commitment is to guide a postgraduate student towards successful completion, within the time limit, of a thesis – for a PhD, that’s 80,000-words-worth.  To do that requires advice and encouragement, frequent meetings and emails, and much reading of and commenting on drafts.

Scribbling away

8. Most academics (again depending on individual contracts) will be expected to contribute to scholarship and knowledge by conducting research, and usually publishing the results to the world.  The topics for research are up to the individual.  Obviously, they will be in an area of interest to him or her.  Students will often be aware of the results of these efforts.  Academics in the Law School have written several of the set books for subjects taught (for which they receive laughably-low royalty payments).  They also publish academic books which are not aimed at students.  They will have published articles, or chapters in books.  Reports may be published by official bodies, or parliamentary committees, or think tanks, which contain work done by academics here.  Some manage large, funded research projects which involve several people, here and in other places:  making bids for such projects is very time-consuming indeed, and happily Manchester has a good record of success.  Considerable pressure is imposed by universities on academics to research and publish, because research ratings are used to judge and compare universities, and evidence of good research has historically been the main criterion for promotion to senior lecturer, reader, and professor. The University is trying to make good teaching an equally-relevant criterion.

9. To help their research, academics are expected to go to conferences, here and overseas, at which they exchange their findings or latest thoughts with their peers.  They also organise some such conferences.  Occasionally, academics may be appointed as Specialist Advisers to parliamentary committees for a particular inquiry (quite well paid).  Some will be referees for submissions to academic journals, and to help the research councils (unpaid and voluntary).  Academics will also be invited to contribute to the media on topical matters to which their research is relevant.

10. Academics are permitted to undertake limited paid or unpaid work outside the University, subject to University rules.  And their opinions may be sought by public or private bodies by way of consultancy.  They may be invited to chair or be members of prestigious bodies which are related to their scholarship.  This all happens as a direct result of public knowledge of their academic standing.

Good citizens

11. You could have worked out for yourselves that academics are employed to teach and to research.  But they also have to do “administration”, for which the University currently prefers the word “citizenship”.  The Head of School has time for little else.  The Director of Teaching and Learning, the Exams Officer, and others, bear heavy and very necessary burdens which underpin teaching and research.  But most academics have some citizenship responsibilities, whether at Law School, or Faculty of Humanities, or University level.  There are many School boards and committees.  The Faculty has committees (such as on Teaching and Learning) which require Law members.  The University, too, sometimes needs Law School people to sit on or chair committees.  For instance, a few Law professors (including me) chair the University Student Discipline Committee which deals with allegations of student malpractice, and one chairs the University Research Ethics Committee.

12. But that is a narrow definition of citizenship.  Academics do much more than that (which if I may say so is just as well.  My First Law of Meetings has it that 60 minutes in a meeting can result in at least 40 minutes wasted – unless it is well-chaired, which is the case in the School).  And so what now follows is just as important – perhaps more so – to the success of the Law School.

13. Most academics are academic advisers.  There are guidelines for this role, but essentially the job comes down (if I might borrow a phrase) to a duty to advise, encourage, and warn advisees.  Students are generally allocated at random to such advisers, although they may of course change if the adviser goes on leave, or indeed goes.  One responsibility which, like emails, has become an increasingly significant one is that of writing references.  Even with the advantage of word-processing, this important work takes much time.  And it isn’t limited to a student’s own adviser:  often someone else is needed as well because the requester of a reference asks for more than one referee.

14. The Law School is very fortunate in having a wide range of student-centred activities.  To take just one example, mooting is an important aspect of School life, which requires judges from the ranks of academics.

15. But what can’t be quantified, and what certainly won’t fit into any Work Allocation Model, is time spent by individual academics talking to individual students.  This can be in the semi-formal context of published office and drop-in hours.  Or it can be informal, before or after a class, or in the corridor or lift, or in the Student Common Room, or in the street, or in Sainsbury’s.  Or it can be at social events arranged by students (of which academics would be grateful for as much notice as possible, given family and other commitments).  Wherever it may be, such talking is important.  If you don’t understand why, I can’t help you.

A small secret revealed

16. Academics also have their own lives to lead;  they do things completely unrelated to work;  many have children;  they take holidays.  Without that, what they do in relation to students wouldn’t be anything like as good as all would want it to be.

January 2012